FTC Threatens to Sue Kochava Over Revealing Visits to Abortion Clinics

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The Federal Trade Commission threatens to sue an ad-tech company that, according to a lawsuit against the agency, reveals people’s visits to sensitive locations, including women’s reproductive health clinics.

The agency’s proposed complaint, against Idaho-based Kochava, alleges that the company is violating laws prohibiting “unfair or deceptive practices” by allowing its clients to access data collected from mobile devices that can identify people and track their visits to healthcare providers can follow.

In addition to women’s reproductive health clinics, the agency says the data could be used to trace people to therapists, addiction treatment centers and other medical facilities. Because the coordinates the company collects are timestamped, they can be used to identify when a person has visited a location.

Kochava disclosed the threat in a lawsuit on Friday, in which the company says the agency “falsely” claims it violates consumer protection laws. The FTC declined to comment.

The move is an early indication of how the agency could assert itself as a defender of health-related data, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to Roe v. Wade in June. The FTC action comes as prominent Democrats, privacy advocates and technologists warn that people’s digital tracks could become evidence in abortion prosecutions, and after cases where details such as search history and Facebook posts about the proceedings have been used as evidence against women. .

Texts, web searches about abortion have been used to persecute women

In the absence of a comprehensive federal privacy law, there are limited steps Democrats in Washington can take to protect reproductive health data. The Biden White House has turned to the Federal Trade Commission to take on the mantle, urging the agency in July to take steps that would protect people’s privacy when seeking reproductive health services.

However, the more than 100-year-old agency is struggling to acquire the resources and technological expertise needed to combat emerging privacy threats. The FTC has been historically slow in building and taking cases against companies. It could take years for FTC privacy matters to be resolved, but Kochava has already announced some changes to its privacy practices around sensitive health data. Kochava said the FTC sent it a proposed complaint “in or about July and August,” about three months since news of the Supreme Court’s decision first leaked.

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Kochava denies the FTC’s allegations, writing in his lawsuit: that they illustrate “a lack of understanding” of his services. On Thursday, the company announced it would create a “privacy block” service that would remove health location data from its market.

“This is a manipulative attempt by the FTC to create the appearance of protecting consumer privacy, despite being based on completely false pretenses,” said Brian Cox, the general manager of the Kochava Collective, the data marketplace. of the company, in a statement to The Washington Post.

Cox also said the FTC was trying to get the company to agree to a settlement “as a result of setting a precedent in the adtech industry and setting precedent for the established process of creating laws by Congress. to appropriate.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, Leaving states free to ban abortion sparked a wave of privacy concerns that adtech companies or data brokers, which collect and sell personal information, can be used to detect whether an individual has visited an abortion provider.

These fears are not entirely hypothetical. In 2017, the Massachusetts Attorney General reached a settlement with an advertising company hired to send targeted ads using a technique known as “geofencing” to target “abortion-conscious women” while in health clinic waiting rooms. . The women were shown advertisements with texts such as ‘You Have Choices’ and ‘You’re Not Alone’, which took people to a website with information about alternatives.

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In addition to enforcement actions, the Federal Trade Commission could also try to protect reproductive data by drafting new privacy rules. The agency announced last week that it is investigating whether new rules should be drafted to address “commercial oversight”. The agency’s request for the public to weigh in on the process outlined concerns about health technology and location data, citing previous action taken against a time-tracking app.

‚ÄúPart of the discussion surrounding the recent dobbs The decision just underscores what many people have been saying for a long time: consumer privacy isn’t just an abstract issue,” Sam Levine, director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, told reporters at a news conference about the agency investigating privacy rules.

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